March 27, 2014 4:20 pm

I Can’t Sing!, Palladium, London – review

Harry Hill’s musical takes aim at the TV talent show phenomenon – but doesn’t hit the bull’s-eye
A scene from 'I Can't Sing' at the London Palladium©Tristram Kenton

A scene from 'I Can't Sing' at the London Palladium

There is a sort of grand folly about this enterprise that is, in its way, admirable. Harry Hill’s new musical (directed by Sean Foley) takes on the Roman circus of our day – the television talent show in all its excess – in the shape of TV colossus The X Factor. There’s plenty up for scrutiny here about the cultural significance of such shows. And I Can’t Sing! takes up the position of the jester at court, cheekily poking fun at the powers-that-be (the show is co-produced by X Factor supremo Simon Cowell) and styling the talent-show world as a bizarre, hysterical environment in which latter-day gods (the piece is studded with little religious references) can raise up mere mortals to the paradise of showbiz success or dash them back into obscurity.

It’s deliberately daft, cheesy, good-natured and dotted with pastiche songs by Steve Brown (one cleverly composed entirely of clichés). But while this ought to sizzle, it feels rather strained and is undermined by a flimsy plotline and a level of parody that doesn’t dig deep enough to reveal anything new. You need something as sharp, smart and precisely calibrated as The Book of Mormon; you get a fairly predictable, often affectionate satire that might work well as a short show, but that on this vast stage and at two and three quarter hours, becomes a long joke.


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The first act bumbles along, stuffed with intentionally bad-taste gags, some funny, some not. We meet Chenice, who lives with her sickly grandpa in a caravan beneath a flyover. Local plumber, singer and love interest Max persuades her to try for The X Factor. Chenice ticks all the boxes: a good voice, despite her protestations (which she outlines in the title song), self-doubt and a tear-jerking back story. There’s some good work with a savvy pet dog (operated by puppeteer Simon Lipkin) and a chance to send up thrusting contestants, self-important hangers-on and preening judges. Presenter Dermot O’Leary becomes Liam O’Deary (Simon Bailey, very good). But it’s still pretty thin stuff and the gags can be cringe-worthy.

It picks up in the second half as Es Devlin provides a series of wonderfully flamboyant sets, Machiavellian tactics break out between the judges, and we see more of Nigel Harman’s deranged, messianic Simon. The young lovers, Cynthia Erivo and Alan Morrissey, have great charm and Erivo has a sensational voice. But overall there’s too much gravy, not enough meat. I’m afraid it’s a no from me.

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